NOISY hustle and bustle emanates from corridors deep within Almondvale Stadium once you walk past reception.
Training has finished and players and coaches are preparing for a video analysis session. The room we sit in is off the beaten track. Empty and slightly eerie, if the truth be told. There is one bench to sit on. It looks rather bleak, but nothing can detract from the contentment felt by the man of the moment.
Marc McNulty has beaten players from all four divisions to the SPFL Goal of the Month. His exquisite finish against Dumbarton in November is one of 11 goals he has scored in 18 appearances this season. Fittingly for a player nicknamed “Sparky”, his form is electric. He takes his seat on the aforementioned bench and makes light of the humble surroundings, for he is no stranger to hardship. The striker was released by Hibs aged 16 and thought his life, not just his football career, was over. The recovery has been gradual but is now gathering serious momentum.
At 21, McNulty is an established regular at Livingston. He has been slowly nurtured back to good health following the devastation of leaving Hibs. He is thriving in a two-man forward line beside Andy Barrowman and has scored six goals in his last four games. His movement, link-up play and finishing ability have all improved in West Lothian. What we are witnessing is the maturing of a striker who will surely reach a higher level.
McNulty reveals he was on the books of both Celtic and Hibs as a kid but feels his emergence at Livingston was meant to be. “I quite believe the whole thing was supposed to happen,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason. Not getting a contract from Hibs at that age, I thought it was the end of the world. I was saying I’ll never be a football player and all the rest of it. I’ve got a good family and good friends, though, and they supported me through tough times like that.”
Having played with Edinburgh-based Hutchison Vale from the age of five, McNulty joined Celtic aged ten and stayed for three years. “Celtic offered me a new deal when I was 13 but I was doing so much travelling at such a young age and all my mates were at Hibs. I just wanted to be at Hibs so I left Celtic to go there.” Three years later, he was surplus to requirements at Easter Road. “They didn’t offer me another contract so I found my way to Livingston and I haven’t looked back.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. A matter of weeks after McNulty joined, Livingston suffered financial collapse and were demoted to the bottom tier of Scotland’s professional league system. “I came here at 16 thinking they were going to be in the First Division. I’d just signed my contract when they went into administration and got shipped back down to the Third Division. That was a bit of a kick in the teeth but you could see things were happening at the club. Livingston have been known for having a good youth team for years so I wanted to stay about. It’s been good being involved in bringing the club back up to where I think they should be.
“Livi being demoted to the Third Division sort of worked out in my favour. Even playing at that level was a step up for me at 16 or 17. I was still learning and it was a harder level than under-19s. We had a very good under-19 team and we won games by stupid scorelines. I was scoring six goals a game sometimes. It was completely different at first-team level. Selfishly, you look at it as an opportunity to play more because it was obviously hard for the club to keep their main players. A few of them left. Gary Bollan was the manager at the time and he gave me my debut. It was like a few ten-minute spells here and there, so it was good getting involved at such a young age.”
Livingston are established back in the Championship and McNulty’s focus is now firmly on the future. He is one of a few young proteges who could be sold during the January transfer window. Stefan Scougall and Coll Donaldson are others being monitored by clubs on both sides of the Border. The Almondvale board will listen to serious and sensible offers to help supplement their tight budget.
“Every player’s got ambitions and you want to play at the top level,” continues McNulty. “In the past, for whatever reason, I’ve not got a move. Maybe I’ve not been quite on form or whatever. When there are a couple of young players coming through at Livi, a few people talk big about them and there is a wee bit of pressure. Livingston are known to be a selling club but you can’t concentrate on that too much. If it happens, it happens. You need to be ambitious. Moving to the Premiership would be a higher level for me because I’ve only ever played in the First Division, or Championship as it’s called now. I’d like to give England a shot one day at whatever level it may be.”
He is in no rush to leave. This is the happiest McNulty has felt in his career and his current goals-to-games ratio is his best yet at senior level. He is joint top scorer in the Championship with Falkirk’s Rory Loy and Dundee’s Peter MacDonald. The Goal of the Month award tops off a most productive period. “I’ve not had anything like that before,” he smiles. “It was one of my better goals. A couple of the lads congratulated me and a couple of others said it was a mishit. I’m taking a bit of stick. It’s quite hard at times getting a bit of recognition in the Championship but you can’t really do much else apart from try to score goals.”
Key to McNulty succeeding in that area recently has been a change of tactics by manager John McGlynn. “I was playing out wide in a three-man forward line so I was doing a lot of defending and tracking back down the park more,” says the player. “I wasn’t getting many chances and wasn’t getting into the box so much. Then the gaffer changed it from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and we’ve been getting more chances. That’s been good for me.
“I’m playing centrally with Barra [Barrowman] and that’s my position. I’m a striker and I want to score goals. Barra is going to win his share of flick-ons and that gives you more chances when you’re up front together in a 4-4-2. This is the best wee vein of form I’ve been in and hopefully I can keep that going. This is a hard division. It’s very physical. I’ve been here a few years now but I’ve been kind of a bit-part player and I’ve had a couple of injuries which set me back. Last year and certainly this year I’ve established myself as a first-team regular.”
With that, he is up off the bench and away for a team video analysis session of last weekend’s game with Cowdenbeath. It should be pleasant viewing. Livingston fought back from 2-0 down to win the game 3-2. It should come as no surprise that McNulty scored twice.